Back Off, Jerk: In Defense of ‘Friends’ (‘Cheers’ for Gen-Xers)

The finale episode of NBC sitcom Friends aired 10 years ago this month. Michael Yellin reflects on the show’s highs, lows, quirks, and shark-jumps, all the while defending the show’s ultimate accomplishments.

Once upon a time, there was a television show called Friends set in a city very much like New York, except that clean, spacious apartments were affordable and nearly everyone who lived there was white. Friends and family would gather at the same place and at the same time to watch this “must see TV” so that they could discuss the plot twists at the office water cooler. (This was before the water bottle revolution.) It was a time when a woman could ask her hairdresser for “The Rachel” and George Stephanopolis jokes were funny.

Well, times have changed. In hindsight, the show’s shortcomings are front and center. The cast — from stars to extras — was as white as the audience at a Phish concert. New York is the home of the Puerto Rican diaspora, yet I can’t remember a single Nuyorican appearing on the show. Late in the game, the producers cast Aisha Tyler as Ross’s girlfriend, but Tyler’s interactions with him and the rest of the gang were predictably awkward. It didn’t help that no one on the show acknowledged that she was black. Let’s be honest: a real life Joey would have accused Ross of having ‘jungle-fever.’ (To be fair, when I researched this article, I came across a late episode when Joey and Ross are both dating a black woman, though neither seems to notice that she’s black. Nonetheless, there was never a black “friend.”) It wasn’t just the cast, though. The show’s lack of diversity extended to its culture as well. Friends was like the video companion to Christian Lander’s Stuff That White People Like.

The longer the show was on, the more it devolved into a seamless web of rapid camera cuts and catch phrases. (At this point, I’d like to give a shout out to the guy in New Hampshire with the OUDOIN license plate.) The show’s formula could still generate laughs from less discerning viewers (myself included), but most were happy to see Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, and Phoebe put out of their misery in May 2004. Joey, of course, spun out to California before meeting a similar fate.

The biggest gripe I hear about Friends, particularly from the college students I teach, is that it was a show about self-obsessed whiners who fixated on minutia because they lacked real problems. This is where I dissent because I think what we have here is a disconnect between Generation-Xers, who grew up with latch-keys but had decent post-college job prospects, and Millennials, who have helicopter parents but insurmountable student debt. If we take a closer look at the series, particularly the early seasons, we’ll see that the show struck a nerve with (admittedly) middle class Gen-Xers who bore scars from divorces and other acts of parental mass destruction and faced a future that seemed as bland as it was benign.

Here We Are Now, Entertain Us

Given the place that Friends eventually secured in mainstream TV, it is difficult to remember that it was controversial when it debuted in the fall of 1994. I was a college junior then, and I remember the old folks working up a lather over this group of feckless slackers who exhibited no real desire to get their lives together. Ross, perhaps the most accomplished professionally as a paleontologist, began the series sullen over his pregnant wife divorcing him for a women. (More on lesbians a little later.) His sister Monica was a formerly obese teen who was now an anal retentive chef working in the underbelly of New York’s dining scene. Though beautiful, Monica couldn’t seem to find a healthy relationship.

Rachel, Monica’s childhood friend and Ross’ unrequited childhood love, entered the show as a Long Island princess fleeing her wedding to a wealthy dentist. Joey was a dim-witted but studly Italian actor struggling in off off-Broadway shows like “Freud! The Musical.” Phoebe was a flakey, new age massage therapist with a history of living on the streets as a kid. (She also had a twin sister who waitressed at a place frequented by Paul and Jamie Buckman from “Mad About You.”) Lastly, Chandler was an undateable schlub working on “the WEENUS” at his Kafkaesque white collar job. All in all, a lost generation.

Friends wasn’t the first show to feature a cast of lovable losers. The blueprint for such a sit-com was drawn up by the creators of Cheers. However, those losers were grizzled drunks, aging barmaids, and washed-up bartenders filled with regret. The patrons of “Central Perk” wallowed in self-pity, but their prospects were not yet dim. Who wouldn’t choose Chandler Bing over Cliff Claven? So why were they sitting around a coffehouse doing nothing? If some baby boomer viewers were asking these questions to themselves, their proxies were asking these kids on screen. One can’t fail to notice that most of the parents on the show were played by notable celebs from a previous generation: Elliot Gould played Monica and Ross’s dad, Marlo Thomas played Rachel’s mom, Teri Garr played Phoebe’s mom, and Kathleen Turner played Chandler’s drag-queen dad. We saw the “me” generation take on the “meh” generation. Much of the early humor of the show revolved around the drama stirred up by these parents and their kids’ attempts to escape it. As a result, drama became farce.

A perfect example of such farce can be found in an early guest spot by Jon Lovitz. Lovitz plays a food critic who was coming to Monica and Rachel’s apartment to sample Monica’s cooking. When he arrives, Phoebe, who has been riding in a cab with Lovitz, reveals that he had “blazed up a doobie” on the way over. Hilarity ensures as the ‘famished’ Lovitz devours everything, from Monica’s appetizers to gummi bears, without bothering to taste them. He also nails the classic stoner line: “Macaroni and Cheese! We gotta make this!”

Now, to place this in context, you have to remember the competing views on pot that preceded the 1990s. In the ’60s and ’70s, hippies declared that marijuana was the gateway to enlightenment. In the ’80s, Nancy Regan declared that marijuana was the gateway to cocaine addiction. “Just drop out” versus “just say no.” Whatever the pros and cons of smoking pot are (another discussion for another time), both these arguments are melodramatic bullshit. Pot might make you undiscerning to a comical degree, but it won’t change the world. It’s a diversion, not a movement. Generation X was the first not to take pot (or themselves) too seriously.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

To illustrate Generation X’s slacker zeitgeist, the shows’ creators, David Crane and Marta Kaufman, borrowed David Letterman’s self-deprecating approach to comedy in the show’s early days. Believing that no one was watching anyway, they gave Ross a monkey, Chandler a “nubbin” (i.e. a third nipple), and Phoebe an atonal, a-rhythmic song about a “smelly cat.” The friends’ spying on “ugly naked guy” isn’t that far off from watching stupid human tricks; both are basically people watching. Characters like Fun Bobby, who turns up at a party grieving the death of his grandmother; Paolo, Rachel’s Eurotrash booty call boy; and Gunther, who pines away for Rachel, are straight men akin to Letterman’s Biff Henderson. I love the episode when Ross asks Paolo what he’s doing in the apartment; Paulo blithely answers in heavily accented English: “I do Raquel.”

Joey’s struggles with English, his native language, also fit in here. Some of the shows’ funniest moments are when Joey considers the meanings of “supposably,” “omnipotent,” and “moo(t).” Surprisingly, his character became one of the comedic focal points of the show. Early on in the series, he seemed to be a bad actor playing a bad actor, but he grew into the role. His comedic timing improved immensely. One of my favorite exchanges takes place when Ross asks Joey for sex advice:

Ross: Joey, you’ve had a lot of sex, right?
Joey: What, today? Some…not a lot.

Viewers were never quite sure where Joey’s sexual prowess ended and his bravado began. Somehow, though, he didn’t seem quite as sleazy skirt-chasing Sam Malone on Cheers. Where Sam’s romantic adventures were treated as heroic conquests, Joey’s were picaresque. Friends took a truly casual approach to casual sex.

Picaresque elements of the absurd were funny because the postmodern condition delegitimized rational narratives. (That’s right, I’m hauling in Lyotard to defend Friends.) I’m sure that neither Letterman nor the creators of friends set out to be postmodern. Nevertheless, their shows fit a world where the national news was dominated by the O.J. Simpson trial. Still, they pushed the envelope a little too far when Joey and Chandler adopted a duck for a pet.

When Chandler Met Monica

The unspoken premise of Friends was the memorable maxim from the movie When Harry Met Sally: Men and women cannot be friends because sex always gets in the way. The show started out to disprove this claim. Watching Monica and Rachel in their pajamas eating breakfast with Chandler and Joey, some early critics feared that the whole show was headed toward an orgy. These critics had obviously not attended a small liberal arts college with coed dorms and bathrooms in the 1990s. Having attended such an institution, I can tell you that men and women living in close quarters does not lead to Caligula. A man in boxers brushing his teeth next to a woman in her PJs brushing her own is more likely to lead to mutual understanding (What a concept!) than cheap bathroom sex. Friends deserves credit for representing the possibility of deep friendships between men and women.

Of course, this premise ultimately led to the show’s demise. While it is true that men and women can be friends, it is equally true that such long-term friendships make boring TV. Comedy eventually expires and must be replaced by drama. It is no surprise that most people believe Friends “jumped the shark” either when Rachel and Ross became lovers or when Chandler and Monica first took a bath together. I pick the latter because I think the portrayal of Rachel and Ross’s break-up and its aftermath was spot-on. When guys and gals form a close circle of friends, internecine hook-ups and break-ups inevitably become an issue. Ross and Rachel were suitably awkward with each other through much of the series. Granted, the will they/won’t they get back together see-saw that the producers of the show dragged on for years eventually tested the sappiest viewer’s endurance, but we shouldn’t judge a TV series by its dying days.

Now I’ve Seen Everything

I’m not a TV historian, but I’m pretty sure that Friends was the first primetime show on a major network to feature a lesbian wedding. The match was between Ross’ ex-wife, Carol, and her partner. Here again, this was not played up as heavy drama; rather, it was really very sweet. Ross walks Carol down the aisle and dances with her new wife. The atmosphere is kept light by Phoebe, who is possessed by the restless spirit of an old Jewish lady. The woman, apparently, will not rest easy until she feels she has seen everything. The wedded bliss of two women does the trick.

This was all pretty progressive stuff back in the ’90s, but it wasn’t didactic. It wasn’t a “very special” episode of Friends. Ross and the gang didn’t return after the credits to speak about tolerance or urge viewers to learn more about lesbianism at their local library. No revolution. No parades. Just two people in love surrounded by their friends.

But These Are Different Times

We won’t see another show like Friends on primetime TV. Not because it was singularly brilliant but rather because it no longer has an audience. The show was neither dumb enough to attract today’s viewers of crap like The Real Housewives of Westport, CT nor smart enough to snag more discerning views who watch highbrow literary series like Mad Men. And that’s not even counting those zombies who watch cat videos on Youtube. Still, the show will live on in the hearts and minds of Generation X. Or maybe not. Well, whatever. Nevermind.

Hey I got through the whole article without mentioning that insipid theme song. You know, the one that goes, “I’ll be there for you…” Oh, rats! Now it will be in all our head…

(Also, for bonus viewing pleasure, here’s my favorite clip from the entire history of the series — Ryan Reed, editor)

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